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Car show planned to raise funds for monument to four young firefighters killed in 1954 Jenkins Mountain fire

BY ROZELLA HARDIN
Editorial Director
rozella.hardin@elizabethton.com
In February 1954 four Carter County teens — Kenneth Pierce, Bobby Simerly, Jerry Woods, and Herman Carden — were killed in a fire on Jenkins Mountain. They went to fight flames caused by a man burning a sage grass field behind his house. The man lost control of the fire and it quickly spread.
The fire in which the young men died occurred Feb. 27, 1954, when a strong wind pushed the fire upslope and the fire crowned. The firefighters were caught on the slope above the fire and were overrun. Simerly was 15 years old and Pierce, Woods, and Carden were 19 years old. The four had been recruited by young Simerly’s father, Will Simerly, to fight the fire.
In 2020 Kenneth Howard Nave, a Siam resident, suggested a local memorial be built for the four young men who perished in the fire — Kenneth Pierce, Bobby Simerly, Jerry Woods, and Herman Carden. Sometime after that Sen. Rusty Crowe introduced a resolution in the Tennessee State Senate commending Nave for his efforts to honor the memories of the four young men, who perished in the Jenkins Mountain fire.
Now, a 14-year-old Boy Scout, Seth Whitehead, as part of his Eagle Scout project, has undertaken an assignment which will raise funds to purchase a memorial for the four young men who perished in the fire. “Nothing currently exists for these brave young men who died protecting a community. The memorial will be a group of stone monuments located at the Hampton-Valley Forge Fire Department, which has a perfect view of Jenkins Mountain, where the tragedy took place. The monument will honor the bravery and valor of all four of these fallen heroes,” Whitehead wrote.
To raise funds for the project a car show will be held Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Stateline Drive-In Theater. Vehicles will register the day of the show beginning at 9 a.m. and must be registered by noon to be judged. The first 80 vehicles to register will receive a custom dash plaque. A number of trophies and door prizes will be given at the show.
Whitehead said all makes and models are welcome and can register for a cash donation. The public is invited free of charge.
Whitehead’s plans call for two stone monuments, four smaller footstones, and one informational stone. The first will be a stone bench engraved with the names and ages of the fallen firefighters in addition to the name and date of the fire. The monument will also have the logos of Boy Scouts of America, TN Division of Forestry, and the Hampton-Valley Forge Volunteer Fire Department along with the words engraved “Seth Whitehead’s Eagle Scout Project, (date), Troop 516, Elizabethton, TN.”
The second monument will be placed approximately three to five feet in front of the bench and will be a slated stone monument with an outline picture of Jenkins Mountain. An arrow will mark the spot where the tragedy took place. A Bible verse from Isa. 6:8: “Also I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.” will be engraved in honor of the four young men who went that day to protect our community.
The four footstones with the names of each firefighter will be placed directly in front of the slanted stone monument along with an information stone about the fire.
Young Whitehead said 100 percent of all money raised will go to fund the Eagle Scout project, which will include the stone memorials and building a large landscape area at the Hampton-Valley Forge Fire Department where the memorials will be placed. “This is an expensive project, but if any money is left when the project is completed, it will be donated to the fire department as they continue to protect our community,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead’s father is Capt. Greg Whitehead, a fire investigator with the Tennessee Division of Forestry.
Young Seth Whitehead’s scouting career began as a cub scout in elementary school. He went through the cub scout ranks and then joined the Boy Scouts. He is now a Life Scout in Troop 516 in Elizabethton, under the direction of scoutmaster Ricki Dykes.
Whitehead recently graduated from T.A. Dugger Junior High School and will be a freshman at Elizabethton High School this fall.
All four boys, who perished in the fire, lived in the Siam community. The funerals for Woods and Carden were held the following Monday at the Siam Baptist Church; Pearce’s funeral was also held at Siam Baptist. Simerly’s funeral was held at Rittertown Baptist Church.
Many still remember that tragic Saturday and the days in early March that followed.
Fred Bowers, a retired photographer, told this reporter that he was just a teenager and was at the STAR with Gordon Ward, his mentor. “I asked to see the picture,” Bowers said. “He told me, ‘you don’t want to see them.’ I said, “yes, I do.’”
“I remember there was nothing there but their wallets and belts,” Bowers said.
Some of the young men and women who served as pallbearers and flowerbearers at the four young men’s funerals are still alive today.
According to an Elizabethton STAR article, the 1954 fire was termed a “crown fire” with the fire sweeping through the treetops. The fire overtook the four young men as they fled from a fire line they were manning in an effort to halt the blaze near the top of the rugged peak on the Hampton side of Jenkins Mountain. The newspaper account of the first on Feb. 28, 1954, said the four were trapped by a sudden, shifting wind that swept flames into a narrow hollow high on the mountain overlooking Hampton.